Dogtooth, Giorgos Lanthimos, 96 mins, (18)
Life During Wartime, Todd Solondz, 96 mins, (15)

Todd Solondz's follow-up to 'Happiness' has been out-weirded by a Greek film that takes dysfunction to a new level

As Tolstoy wrote in 1878: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." But that was 17 years before the invention of cinema, so he didn't know the half of it.

He would have been amazed and horrified to see the endless new twists on family agonies that film has devised. Until now, I'd have said that no one took the theme quite as far as American independent Todd Solondz, whose jaw-droppingly auda-cious Happiness (1998) is one of recent cinema's truly great provocations.

But Solondz may have met his match in a new Greek film called Dogtooth, which – as the title suggests – has a way of clamping itself on your attention and refusing to let go, however much it's hurting you. Even so, Solondz is on daring form with Life During Wartime – loosely speaking, a sequel to Happiness. That film was an unforgiving ensemble comedy about human weakness, in which the characters included three sisters, with three different modes of neurosis, and a bland suburban dad who was secretly a predatory paedophile. The scene at the end in which his young son asks him exactly what he does is the most devastatingly uncomfortable thing I've ever witnessed on screen.

Solondz's subsequent films Storytelling and Palindromes seemed a little incomplete by comparison, too formally elusive to hit home to the same extent. Life During Wartime, however, is both a reprise and something new.

It follows the Happiness characters, a few years on. Disgraced father Bill is newly out of prison, while his wife Trish has taken the children and moved to Florida; there she's met a new man (Michael Lerner), whom she falls for because he's so reassuringly normal. Meanwhile, Trish's uncrushably naive sister Joy is still having trouble with men, even the dead ones: one old lover returns from the grave to guilt-trip her.

Life During Wartime might seem a desperate move, an unnecessary follow-up to something impossible to follow; but the conceptually-minded Solondz is doing something quite singular here. The characters are the same but the cast is not, with very different actors stepping into the old roles. As Bill, Dylan Baker – so unsettlingly bland-seeming – is replaced by the brooding, hulking Ciaran Hinds, as though the character has been mentally, emotionally and physically transformed beyond recognition by his exposure. Joy, originally Jane Adams, is now Shirley Henderson, embodying a more fragile, other-worldly ditziness. As Joy's old beau Andy, now an angst-wracked revenant, Jon Lovitz's successor is Paul Reubens, aka disgraced kids' TV host Pee-Wee Herman. This is extremely provocative stunt casting for a film that muses on the possibility of forgiveness, and Reubens is poignantly troubling, his haggard face attesting to the effects of real-life trauma. And as the new Trish, Alison Janney makes a dazzlingly clueless queen of suburban complacency.

Life During Wartime may seem familiar: Solondz playfully admits as much when Joy experiences "just a little déjà vu". But by explicitly framing the film as a reworking of old material, Solondz messes with our expectations and erodes the certainties of character. There are new things too, notably Charlotte Rampling's self-proclaimed "monster" (inset below) who has a passing liaison with Bill: it's her most frightening performance yet, a study in the human heart as ravaged bombsite.

The family is the ultimate place of attrition, but parents and callous siblings aren't the only ones doing harm. The character who causes the profoundest damage is Trish's younger son Billy (a brave and compelling performance by Dylan Riley Snyder) who, after all, is doing nothing more than trying to understand the world in time for his barmitzvah. Solondz himself resembles the anxious suburban kids of his films. He too is always asking terrible questions about life and then, however dreadful the answers, pressing on and never stopping till he's unearthed even worse truths.

But even Solondz might be alarmed by the family in Dogtooth. A middle-aged couple have raised their children – now young adults – in absolute seclusion, feeding them bizarre lies about the world and about language. As far as the son and two daughters know, aeroplanes are tiny things that occasionally crash in the garden, cats are flesh-eating monsters and the sea is a sofa. The children entertain themselves with games of dare, while the son occasionally receives visits from Christina (Anna Kalaitzidou), a security guard paid by Dad (Christos Stergioglou) to keep the boy sexually serviced.

The claustrophobic comic nightmare is all the more intense because everything is made to seem routine, almost normal. The family villa is a clean pleasant place, swimming pool and all, and the sunlit photography creates an idyllic mood – all the better to offset the dominant oppressiveness. Director/co-writer Giorgos Lanthimos keeps us guessing and explains virtually nothing. He also provokes with an edge of queasy sexiness that's all the more unsettling for being utterly perverse and downright awkward.

The extraordinarily disciplined acting (Aggeliki Papoulia and Mary Tsoni are the daughters) shows an ensemble united by a spirit of adventure, a commitment to follow this wild Theatre of Cruelty farce to whatever extremes it leads. You could mention Buñuel, Haneke, Atom Egoyan and Sweetie-era Jane Campion by way of comparison, but Dogtooth is pretty much one of a kind. Its view of family life is so outré that Lanthimos may have the edge on Life During Wartime – but he and Todd Solondz would have lots to talk about. Their folks should feel very proud of them.

Next Week:

Jonathan Romney prepares to grapple with a couple of real sluggers: Iron Man 2 and Viking drama Valhalla Rising

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)

comedy

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

film
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment

film
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own